19th FIFA World Cup - South Africa 2010
11 June to 11 July 2010
DAY 8 SCORES (FRIDAY/JUNE 18)
- Group D - Serbia 1, Germany 0
- Group C - United States 2, Slovenia 2
- Group C - England 0, Algeria 0
Just when you think you've started to figure out the field, the winds switch directions on you yet again. The vuvuzelas, no mere droning cicadas on the South African night, seem almost to laugh at times at what have been ridiculous officiating. One after another players have been booked. Maybe I'll have to crunch the numbers soon, but the past couple days have me wondering where this tournament stands amongst the historical record in terms of average bookings per match. Yesterday we saw Nigeria punished harshly, handing Greece the match. The trend shows no signs of slowing.
Now a referee, as I said yesterday, has a lot of things to process during the course of a match. His eyes and ears can't be everywhere at once. Things look different in one's peripheral vision than in a direct line of focus. Fatigue can naturally creep in -- after all, a soccer referee must put on miles and miles of running just like the players he is following, yet do his damnedest to stay out of the way of the build-up while he does. But in a tournament like the World Cup (or indeed any tournament) one would hope that discretion would be the guiding principle for referees. With cards being passed around like cigarettes in a cell block, discretion has been cast aside just like one of the all-time greatest World Cup scorers was today...
So much for thinking that their four-goal outburst against Australia made Germany the new odds-on favorite to take the title. Just two days after Spain dropped their opener to Switzerland, the Germans found themselves in a bind. Alberto Undiano Mallenco, getting card-crazy, was handing out yellows like candy. Miroslav Klose, who was earlier booked for a fairly innocuous challenge on Serbian midfielder Branislav Ivanovic, found himself a trip off the pitch in the 36th minute. Feeling Nigeria-like pressure after going a man down, Germany was flummoxed as they watched Serbia take the lead.
The worst part for Germany? The departure of Klose marked the departure of their best goalscorer. Klose, the Polish-born German national (his father was German, though he was born in Poland) who was selected to his third straight World Cup roster for Germany after starring in 2002 and 2006, found himself just four goals behind the all-time record set by Brazil's Ronaldo after scoring against Australia in the opener. With eleven goals in World Cup competition and fifty total for his adopted country, the loss of Klose is really going to sting in the group-stage finale against Ghana.
That isn't to discount the goal itself, which was a thing of unbridled beauty. Nikola Zigic was along the far post, leaping to meet the cross into the box with his head. He astutely flicked the ball with his forehead right into the path of a streaking Milan Jovanovic. The 29-year-old winger, who plies his trade in England for Liverpool when he's not suiting up for Serbia, met the ball right before German keeper Manuel Neuer could get to it. Striking true, the ball ended up behind Neuer... and Jovanovic and company bolted off the pitch to celebrate with the Serbian enclave in the stands.
See, this is what the World Cup is all about. Had the Germans won that game, it would have been entirely expected. Fans of Die Mannschaft would have felt none of that same outpouring of emotion that the Serbs did on the sidelines -- after all, Germany was wholly expected to win this match, and any goals would have been mere affirmation of their completed task. But no, this task was completed by another side today. Who do you favor now, as one after another the powerhouses put up lackluster performances? We can see all the resplendent brilliance in one match, but it takes three to illuminate a contender and shake off feelings of being a pretender.
That was what both Slovenia and the United States were trying to figure out in their encounter in the middle of the three matches today. Both teams benefitted from goalkeeping gaffes to gain their points in the openers; Algeria coughed up a late winner to the Slovenians, while Robert Green's well-publicized bungle of Clint Dempsey's shot allowed the Americans to steal a point from England. The United States, hopes of keeping their momentum from last summer in their minds, were squaring off against the smallest nation in the tournament. It was a case of David versus Goliath... but with Slovenia leading the group after one game, and sporting the stoutest defense from European qualifying (four goals allowed in ten matches), it would take ninety minutes to figure out which team was reprising which role from that Biblical tale.
The first half was going all Slovenia's way. Valter Birsa obviously has a grip on the dips and bends to which the Jabulani is prone. Taking the ball in central midfield, he turned right on the edge of the box and unleashed a left-footed curler that befuddled U.S. goalie Tim Howard and tickled the twine in the back of the net. Then, just before halftime, Zlatan Ljubijankic took a pass to the left of the goal. Howard came out to challenge, but Ljubijankic waited until the last possible moment before tucking it right under the keeper's outstretched arms and over the line for a 2-0 lead. With Robbie Findley picking up his second yellow card in as many games just before that, a phantom handball (the ball in replay can clearly be seen striking his face wholly without his cooperation, not his arm) meaning he will be unable for the final game against Algeria, nothing was working for the Americans.
And then... the second half started. Almost as soon as the whistle blew to resume play, Landon Donovan took a brilliant pass on the right side. Maintaining balance to remain just onside, he then corralled the long pass and streaked in from the right toward goal. Coming into the box, he blasted a tremendous strike over Slovenian goalie Samir Handanovic into the roof of the net to pull one back for the United States. The Americans pressed the attack, doing their damnedest to get the equalizer. And then, after several great saves by Handanovic and a couple more off-target chances, Michael Bradley -- the son of coach Bob Bradley -- brought the salvation with an 82nd minute strike that leveled the score and set each side up for a point.
But the Americans weren't done, still driving forward in waves. Slovenia was also counterattacking, trying to regain their advantage and improbably claim a maximum six points from their first two contests. It looked as though the United States had the goal to go ahead and do to Slovenia what Brazil did to them in last summer's Confederations Cup final. Donovan, taking a free kick on the edge of the box, put the ball into the scrum... and it was punched into the net with precision. But then the offside flag went up, Maurice Edu supposedly ahead of the defense, and all was lost. Looking at the replay, we find yet another phantom call from the officials. And thus the Americans and Slovenians split the points. It wasn't disaster for the United States, who now have two points to Group B leader Slovenia's four... but it was a robbery nonetheless.